Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

The Rev. Matthew Potts, Sunday Service Oct. 30, 2022The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, preaches from the pulpit during Sunday service. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio, Nov. 27, 2022)

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

So as you've heard already this morning, today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. It's a new year in the church calendar. And Advent is the season of anticipation, of preparation prior to Christmas, four Sundays of Advent. Traditionally, Advent's a penitential time, not unlike Lent. Historically, it's been a time of a season of fasting and self-discipline. I don't know about you, but fasting and self-discipline are not words that usually describe me in the first three weeks of December.

And it feels early to me. Does it feel early to you? It feels, Advent feels early. We were talking downstairs at the worship meeting before church, and Anna, on our staff, noted that I think this is as early a date as Advent can start because of when Christmas falls this year. And it feels that way. It feels early. I was at CVS yesterday, we were getting some booster shots, and I heard all the Christmas music. And I was thinking of the staff there having to hear the same music for the next four weeks. And I was thinking, "Boy, it's early."

But then I thought about our life. This was yesterday at CVS. Friday, Colette and I did a lot of our Christmas shopping online for Black Friday. The tree went up in Sparks House yesterday. Our garland is up on our mantles. The decorations are going up. The lights are going up outside Sparks House this week, in time for our special holiday themed after school snack this Thursday. So it's early, but we're part of it. We're getting into the swing of things too.

And practically speaking, I think that's what Advent is for many of us. It is a season of preparation and a season of waiting. But again, practically speaking, it's a season of preparation, and waiting for the biggest commercial holiday on the church calendar. If you ask my kids, it's about waiting for Santa. I think for many of us, spiritually speaking, it's more than that. It's not just that the practical planning that goes into preparing for the big holiday season, it's also the spiritual preparations that we're undertaking.

As you know, in my own life, or my own kind of inner sense of things, I identify with the little drummer boy, or the friendly beasts in the manger, or another one of these characters who don't show up in scripture. And I see myself sort of awaiting the Christ child. Awaiting the new child in the manger. That's what Advent ought to feel like spiritually, even if practically, it's running around and getting ready for this big holiday.

So I don't know about you, but it's something of a surprise to me to hear from Jesus in our gospel lesson from Matthew this morning, that he is asking us to wait for something different, something else entirely. This passage, and I'll say more about it in a second, this passage is about the end times, the rapture. One will be taken and another one left. When I come in my glory, one will be taken and another will be left at the end of things.

As I said, it is a new church year, and this year, which is year A in our lectionary cycle, we focus on the gospel of Matthew, and this is a passage from Matthew. If you've been coming to church, here or maybe another church, the last several weeks, you've probably heard us focusing on Luke. And if you were here a couple of weeks ago, you heard me preach on Luke. And Jesus in Luke was also giving us this apocalyptic vision. He was talking about the sort of ruin of Jerusalem, and the ruin of the temple, this apocalyptic vision. And Matthew, in the first of Sunday of Advent, picks up right where Luke left off. And it's the same place in the gospel. If you look at the passages, chapter 24, we're almost at the end of Matthew's gospel. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem. Palm Sunday has already happened. He's already gone into the temple. He overturns the tables of the money changers. He causes a big ruckus, and gets into arguments with everybody there.

And then in Matthew's version, this is slightly different than Luke's, but in Matthew's version, Jesus leaves, and on the way out the disciples say, "When is all this going to happen, Jesus?" And then, Jesus starts talking about it. And all of chapter 24, the first whatever, 30, some verses of chapter four, are Jesus describing the end times. Nation rising against nation. Wars and rumors of wars. And himself, he says, coming on a cloud, descending. Descending to earth on a cloud. The final hymn today, which is my favorite hymn in the whole book, we sang it at my wedding, is from this, Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending, this triumphal return of Jesus. That's the first 30 verses of Matthew.

And then, we get this passage, where Jesus says, "You do not know when it will come. It will come like a thief in the night. One will be taken and another will be left." One will be taken and another will be left. That line carries significant meaning for me this week. As some of you know, my mom, Miyoko Ichihashi Potts, was very, very sick with cancer for a few years. And last week Monday, she entered hospice care. Last week Wednesday, my family and I went down to Cape Cod to be with my dad and my mom, and I gave my mom last rights. And we gathered around her, and she was still laughing, and making us laugh, and bossing my dad around. And we cried and we said goodbye.

And then a week ago, Thanksgiving, a week ago Thursday, my mom died. And we knew this was going to happen. That's why she was in hospice. And we went down there because we knew it was going to happen. And I was just thinking about the season of Advent and our waiting, what we're waiting for, and that day when we were with my mom, someone was always with her holding her hand, and we knew she was going to die, but we didn't know when, we were just waiting. And we also couldn't really do anything to save her from what was coming. All we could do was wait with her, and stay awake with her, which is what we did. And what my dad especially did until she was taken, and we were left.

Jesus says in this passage, "Keep awake. Stay awake. Keep watch." And thinking of that vigil with my mom that we kept last week, and reading this passage for the first time last week, when I was thinking about this sermon, I was asking myself, awake to what? Keep watch for what? Alert to what? The risk here in Matthew chapter 24 is that, we think we're waiting for a battle, because that's what Jesus describes. Coming in on a chariot, and nation rising against nation. We're waiting for Jesus to ride in from heaven on a cloud, leading armies of angels into an apocalyptic conflagration. And indeed, that is what some Christians are waiting for, this idea of the rapture. But is that what waiting is supposed to look like? Is that what Christian waiting is supposed to look like? I don't think it is. And I think there are important reasons why it's not meant to be that.

And I think Matthew actually suggests, the gospel of Matthew suggests, what Christian waiting does look like. Because again, this is chapter 24. At the end of the gospel, Jesus has just given this account of all that will happen, and he's saying, "One will be taken and one will be left." And then chapter 25, Jesus gives an account of the judgment. And he says, "At the judgment, I will say to some, you fed me, you clothed me, you gave me drink. Come into the embrace of your father." And they will say, "When did we feed you? When did we cloth you?" And he says, "Whenever you did it to the least of my children, you did it to me." And then to others, he will say, "You did not. You failed to feed me. You failed to clothe me. You failed to give me drink." And they will say, "When did we fail to do this to you?" And Jesus will say, "Whenever you failed to do this to the least of my children, you failed to do it to me."

Right after this, in chapter 25, Jesus tells us what to watch for, who to watch for, where he will be. In our midst as the least among us. Not coming down in a cloud as a warrior God, but in our midst, as the least among us. That is what we watch for. That is what we keep alert to. The one who is suffering. We keep vigil with them, and hold their hand.

And then in chapter 26, nice chapter 25, chapter 26, Jesus goes into the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples to be arrested. And in the garden with his disciples, he says to them over and over again, "Keep awake. Keep awake.", using the same Greek verb he uses in this passage, keep awake, and they can't stay awake. Keep awake, and they fall asleep again. Keep awake. And then the soldiers come and they run. Before they run, they unsheath their swords, and he puts the sword away. And then they run.

Keeping awake, the command Jesus gives us to keep awake today, is not as abstract, or as speculative, or even as apocalyptic as it seems, if we pay attention to the rest of the gospel. What Jesus is asking us to do happens the day after he's talking to his disciples. Keep awake. Look for me in the least. Where you see suffering, keep watch with that person, keep vigil with that person. Hold onto them. While we're looking up into the clouds, waiting for Jesus to storm in on his chariot, he's here among us, with us, Emmanuel.

Advent is the season of waiting. But if Christ is already out there in the world living among the least, then what are we waiting for? I don't think we're waiting for a warrior God to come in on the clouds. That's not what I'm waiting for. And it's not just because of the way Matthew ends, which gives us an alternative vision. It's also because that marshal vision of a warrior God triumphing is contrary to everything we hear in Isaiah about peace. And that marshal vision is exactly the problem, I think, with much of what goes, what calls itself Christianity in the world today, it's folks who are waiting for war. Who pick up weapons, and do horrifying things, like the shooting at Club Q, in the name of Christianity, and in Christian morality, committing awful acts of violence. Or in the rise of antisemitic hate speech and hateful acts. This rise of Christian nationalism. I don't even like to call it a rise of Christian nationalism, because that's bad history. Christianity has been guilty of this sort of thing for thousands of years, hundreds of years.

But again, Jesus, sheaths their swords in Gethsemane. Jesus is not the agent of violence. He stands with the poor, and the neglected, and the suffering, and the despised. And so, I think, must we. "Keep awake.", Jesus says. And what does staying awake look like? I think it looks like this. It means seeing who is suffering. Seeing who is poor, and ignored, and despised. And in their hour of hardship, going to them, and staying with them, and holding onto them, until they are taken. It means refusing to leave them lost, or afraid, or abandoned. That's what the disciples did 2,000 years ago. It is, if we are honest, what the Christian Church has done too often for 2,000 years. And yet, this Advent, this Sunday, by the grace of God, the call comes to us again. Keep awake.